GREEN & SACRED SPACE, MOUNT AUBURN CEMETERY, with DAVE BARNETT
Just in time for All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, and Day of the Dead - this week we explore the green, sacred, and communal space of a cemetery – specifically Mount Auburn cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts.
Founded in the 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first of a genre of so Called Garden Cemeteries in the US. Horticulturist Dave Barnett is the Emeritus President and CEO of Mount Auburn.
Born in Connecticut surrounded by woodlands, Dave’s mother’s family was involved in production garden centers and his father was a landscape architect. Dave attended the University of Connecticut where he studied ornamental horticulture and went on to graduate degrees in horticulture and ecology at the University of California, Davis.
In college, he did a summer internship at Longwood Gardens, which inspired his path in public horticulture. He was at Planting Fields Arboretum on Long Island for 8 years before joining Mount Auburn in 1993 as the Director of Horticulture. After nearly 30 years of growing the horticultural and cultural legacy of Mount Auburn, Dave retired as President and CEO this September.
I caught up with him earlier this year, exploring the sacred and green horticultural and ecological lessons of Mount Auburn. In our conversation, Dave shares more about the strong recent focus on improving wildlife habitat and human access to the garden and naturalized areas of Mount Auburn, including working to reflect, welcome and include a much more diverse human population. He describes the complexity of the many different levels of the landscape – as arboretum, as garden, as active cemetery and as a habitat green space in a time when all life on earth needs this more than ever.
Dave Barnett began his tenure at Mount Auburn in 1993 as the Cemetery’s first Director of Horticulture and is responsible for elevating the most horticultural and inspirational qualities of Mount Auburn’s landscape. His many professional awards include a Distinguished Service Medal from the Garden Club of America and an Honorary Life Member designation from the American Public Gardens Association.He retired in September of this year and was succeeded by President and CEO Matthew Stephens, a noted leader in Public Horticulture who most recently served Director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden, and Botanical Garden. Among the final projects under Dave’s leadership are a newly redesigned habitat area and a Piet Oudolf design for a large perennial garden – the final planting design for which was completed this year, the planting of which will roll out over the next few years.
You can follow Mount Auburn's horticultural and culture work online at: mountauburn.org/
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JOIN US again next week, when we look at garden history from another angle at the Garden Museum in London in conversation with Director Christopher Woodward. The museum is situated in an old Church and is the burial site of John Tradescant (c1570 – 1638), a noted British gardener and plant-hunter. His tomb is the centerpiece of the Museum’s Sackler Garden. Founded in the 1970s, the museum celebrates the history of gardens through exhibitions, collections, gardens and garden thought – past and present. Listen in next week!
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Thinking out loud this week:
I have a thing for cemeteries – for historic burial sites. They are liminal, sacred, and very often green spaces marking some of our most tender of human thresholds. Not just human burial sites, and not of any one religious or spiritual/cultural tradition. But all kinds. I’ve spent my life visiting them for family and for history – in the south, in the northeast, in the west.
In the senescence of the year, the end of the growing season here in the Northern Hemisphere, with the Covid-19 pandemic bearing in on 5 million deaths worldwide since beginning 20 months ago, it occurs to me that in some ways how we handle death and dying is integral to reflective even of how we live – and as with many things, this is as true in the garden as it is in life. What we cut back, what we save, what we compost, how and where we invest and value our compost. Our gardens – individually and communally - tell and hold these stories along with so many others of our life.
In my most recent newsletter – A View from Here: Ingathering – I shared again a recent experience in which a garden and plant loving friend noted to me our deep need for more ceremony in our lives. In my mind, this is one of the greatest gifts of the garden, this offering out to us a daily, monthly and seasonal call to attention, to purpose and to presence as we tend and commune with our plant friends.
This – attention, purpose, practice, presence is the very foundation of any ceremony, and while we may associate ceremony with grand and formal events, aren’t the rituals of our everyday lives as ceremonially significant to us when we see them as such?
This morning I wrapped up and went out in the dim light of early morning – warm coffee cup in hand, to greet the still large and bright waning and setting moon - haloed by hazy shimmering clouds – low in the sky – just beyond the dark silhouette of the pistache tree – still holding tight to her fall colored leaves in the back garden. A flock of geese flew over in the dark making their own seasonal way – their chatter and wingbeats which I knew to be overhead seemed to be all around – echoing perhaps off the breaking cloud cover, the atmospheric pressure, they seemed to be all around my morning moment – singing, calling, swooshing in the slowly lifting light of this fall day - reminding me like any call to prayer or celebration of exactly where and who I am on this planet, in this annual circle around the sun, in this life.
A perfect ceremony of season - of this life.
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